Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

One of my 2014 resolutions was to go back and pick up a few Golden Oldies from my high school and college reading lists. Here’s a personal fave about a boy and his little white mouse.

I ran across Flowers for Algernon again on somebody’s “best of” list a few weeks ago. I say “again” because I dimly remembered the book from a high school lit class… I seemed to recall Algernon was the mouse.

A quick trip to the library and I had a copy in my hand.

When you read books about writing craft, you learn about how the external action and the internal action in a story need to balance and peak at the same time for maximum effect. But what happens when the external action and the internal action are the same thing?

You get “Flowers for Algernon.”

Charlie Gordon is a retarded man who undergoes brain surgery to reverse the effects of his retardation. The story is told largely through the use of progress reports that Charlie provides as part of his participation in the experiment. At the beginning of the book, Charlie’s reports are rife with spelling and grammar errors. When he races the surgery-enhanced white mouse, Algernon, to solve a maze, he loses every time.

Charlie is happy, but he wants more. He wants to be smart.

The surgery (never fully described) is wildly successful. Charlie’s IQ nearly doubles and he gorges himself on knowledge like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. But he also changes. He doesn’t fit in with his friends at the bakery anymore and argues with the doctors who performed his surgery. His one attempt at dating his former teacher, Alice, is an exercise in personal terror for him. He begins to see that the people he thought were so smart, are nothing more that shallow individuals doing their best to maintain their facade of narrow expertise in the face of his sudden and broad brilliance. As Charlie says: “Another case of men devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less.”

When Charlie travels with his doctors to Chicago to announce the results of his surgery, he realizes that his gains in intelligence has leap-frogged them all. More importantly, he sees that they will never see him as more than an experiment, the human equivalent of a lab rat. In frustration, Charlie kidnaps Algernon and they hide out in New York City together. He meets Fay, an unemployed artist and free spirit, and gets a hands-on course in women and debauchery in ways he had only dreamed of.

Today we might call his inability to interact with others a lack of emotional intelligence, but Keyes takes another path. The real Charlie is still hiding inside of him, holding him back from forming loving relationships, reminding him of his childhood scars. Algernon acts as a canary in the coal mine, alerting Charlie that his genius days are numbered. In desperation, Charlie goes back to the lab, but finds the deterioration is inevitable.

As he comes to terms with his fate, Charlie finds a moment in the sun with Alice. On his climb to geniushood, the couple were unable to establish a loving relationship. But on the descent back to retardation, Alice takes the bull by the horns and moves in with Charlie: “I didn’t go away, Charlie, I’ve just been waiting. You’re just about at my level again, aren’t you?” He also uses the opportunity to reconcile with his sister and visit his now-senile mother. In the end, as his grammar deteriorates and his intellect fades, we’re left with a sense that Charlie has left the world a better place.

There’s a reason why we read these books in high school and college. There’s an even better reason to re-read them later in life.

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